Senior Vice President/Community Development
Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce
Recommendations in the city of Columbia’s new “Strategic Plan for the Office of Economic Development” leverage and build on the work of the Navigating from Good to Great Foundation.
The city plan was developed by Mark Williams and his team at Strategic Development Group, professional site locations consultants who are located in Columbia. Williams, a former project manager for the S.C. Department of Commerce, has worked on many high profile economic development projects in South Carolina and around the nation.
Columbia City Council heard a summary of the SDG plan in mid-April and Williams is in the process of delivering the final plan along with a companion report comparing Columbia to a group of nine Southeastern peer cities.
By way of full disclosure, because of the city’s relationship with Navigating from Good to Great we were asked to assist with portions of the report, specifically a study of how the city could become a better partner with the commercial real estate community.
While the final report will be delivered soon, two recommendations line up squarely with the on-going efforts of the Navigating from Good to Great Foundation: putting some emphasis on expanding existing businesses and making the city more business friendly.
Under “Economic Development Goals,’ the SDG team calls for the “facilitation of the expansion of existing businesses, creating and retaining 500 full-time/equivalent jobs.” SDG also notes that one of the key functions of the office of economic development should be to “expand existing companies.”
In 2008, the city and the Navigating from Good to Great Foundation partnered to launch Business in Motion, the city’s existing business retention and expansion, or BR&E, program. Ryan Coleman, who works for the city’s Office of Economic Development, and John Mikula, the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce’s senior vice president for existing business retention and expansion, have conducted more than 300 interviews with area businesses.
The short-term objectives of Business in Motion include helping businesses address urgent concerns and issues and retaining businesses and jobs that might be at risk of closing. Long term the objective is to increase job creation and new business development. That is exactly what SDG is recommending.
In the course of doing those interviews, the Business in Motion program also validated the perception of an unfriendly business attitude in the city of Columbia, largely because of the issue of dealing with and obtaining business services such as licensing, permitting and inspections. That report also was, in part, the genesis of the Business Services or Business Friendly Task Force that looked at what it would take “to transform Richland County and the city of Columbia into places where business indeed feels that it has been invited and where it feels appreciated.”
The task force delivered its report late last year to both the city and county and is now involved with the Navigating from Good to Great Foundation in an effort to get the recommendations implemented. Among those recommendations is the establishment of an ombudsman who would be a single point of contact for business services for the public.
One of 12 initiatives recommended by the SDG report is “install an ombudsman to assist new businesses with permitting and zoning issues and existing businesses in dealing with issues relating to the city.” The report even borrows language from the task force: “The ombudsman must have the ability and authority to influence the review and approval process. The objective is not to overrule codes or ordinances, but to improve the timeliness of the approval process and improve the customer experience.”
The SDG report recommends several ways to improve the city’s business environment:
Evaluate all existing regulations affecting businesses to ensure that they provide a minimum burden on businesses while maintaining adequate safety, environmental and other critical standards.
Evaluate all department heads based not only on their performance in applying necessary elements of regulation, enforcement and services, but also their performance in a) interacting seamlessly with other city departments to provide a business start-up and expansion environment that requires the least possible time and resources from businesses, and b) developing continuous improvement of all systems and programs that further enhance the efficiency of interactions with business and generate improved approaches to “customer service.”
Enlist the services of an expert familiar with best practices related to business friendly interactions to implement systems and electronic communication.
All measures were at least touched on by the Business Friendly Task Force.
Implementation of the task force’s recommendations would take the city a long way toward implementing much of what is in SDG’s strategic plan for economic development for the city.
C. Grant Jackson is senior vice president/community development for the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce. He can be reached at (803) 733-2513 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.